Have you ever thought about Jesus' command to take on his yoke and burden and wondered what He meant when he promised it would be “easy” and “light.” Anyone who’s been a Christian for any significant time will tell you that following Jesus isn’t always easy. It costs a lot! It takes all of your effort! By choosing the narrow road to life, you invite upon yourself all kinds of trials, hardships, and suffering.
So what is Jesus talking about in Matthew 11:29-30 when he promised that His Way is actually the easy one? It almost sounds like Jesus is just another prosperity teacher making false promises to get a check from the desperate and hopeless.
Dallas Willard opened my eyes to this question in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Basically, he makes the case that the reason the Christian life seems so hard is because we do not truly commit our entire lives to the pursuit of following Christ. We hold back, we don’t train, and we don't let the life Christ influence how we live our own.
Creating a Lifestyle of Training
Think about how much time and effort goes into becoming a professional basketball player. Most of what they do is spent in preparation for the game, not playing the game the itself. They spend many more hours practicing––running through drills, watching game footage, and developing their mindset––just so they can go out and perform for a couple of hours. Their extensive preparation makes their ability to play basketball seem "effortless.”
The layman might say they were born with natural talent. And this may be true. But no one becomes world class through talent alone. Only those who are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to structure their lives around the game and put in tens of thousands of hours of work end up becoming one of the best in the world. They literally eat, sleep, and live basketball. This is what it takes for them to be ready to perform on game day.
This is remarkably similar to how the Christian life plays out. We don’t often compare the two because one is a game and the other is a way of life that claims to be The Way of Life. But maybe we should. Paul did when he told the Corinthian church that he disciplined his "body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Corinthians 9:27). And since we would never expect a professional athlete to be successful if they showed up on game day without the properly training themselves, why would we expect a Christian to be able to love their enemies, avoid even lustful thoughts, and go the extra mile for those who persecute them?
So if we expect to effectively follow Christ and act according to the character God has called us to, then we must train and condition ourselves to be ready to perform at a moments notice. Like everything we wish to succeed at in life, we must establish a training regimen that will allow the Holy Spirit to form in us the character necessary to face temptation and faithfully endure trials when they arise.
Everything is Hard Until You've Learned It
I often repeat this phrase to myself before I’m about to try something new for the first time or practice something I find difficult. It gives me perspective about what it takes to become good at any skill. Everything you now find easy to do once felt incredibly hard. Don't believe me? Watch a toddler learn to walk for the first time. The Christian life is no different. It takes practice to become adept at following Christ and living the life He’s call us to.
Here again Willard helps us recognize the important of this process of preparation by helping us remember that even Jesus needed time spent in preparation away from the crowds in order to perform all the good works God intended. “Out of such preparation, Jesus was able to lead a public life of service through teaching and healing. He was able to love his closest companions to the end––even though they often disappointed him greatly and seemed incapable of entering into his faith and works. And then he was able to die a death unsurpassed for its intrinsic beauty and historical effect.” (5)
We don’t usually think of Jesus as needing to have prepared in order to minister to others. We tend to just think He was God, and so he just showed up and started healing and teaching. But if Jesus took on all of our human limitations when he became flesh, then we have to expect that He would have grown tired from all the attention and become aggravated when He had to explain himself for the twelfth time.
And we see how Jesus prepared himself when we read Scripture. He was constantly retreating from the public’s eye to practice solitude and to spend time with His Father in prayer. He fasted in the desert to teach His body how to deny itself and only be sustained by the word of God. He studied Scripture as a boy to learn and grow as He sought to please God. Jesus lived a lifestyle that enabled Him to do all that He taught. And the way He lived His life was as much a part of His teaching on how we should follow Him as were His parables and sermons.
The Secret to an Easy Yoke
People are always looking for the easy way out. This is why we ask questions of those who are at the top of their fields like, “What is the secret to success.” But the truth is, if we really wanted to be like those people, we would imitate them and their lifestyle. We would reorganize our entire lives around the pursuit of those goals and begin diligently working to accomplish them.
“So, if we wish to follow Christ––and to walk in the easy yoke with him––we will have to accept his overall way of life as our way of life totally. Then, and only then, we may reasonably expect to know by experience how easy is the yoke and how light the burden.” (8)
Notice that Willard does not say that the trials and hardship won’t come. Jesus Himself promises they will. Instead, Willard invites us to view the Christian life holistically, requiring us to dedicate every aspect of who we are to the pursuit of growth in following Christ. In this life, we can hold nothing back. And when we have given ourselves completely to training for this endeavor, then when we face the tests that lie ahead, others may see our response and wonder how we make it look “easy.”
Does your life look like one that has been designed around the pursuit of following Christ? What areas are you having trouble letting go? How might you better structure your day to be more effective in your training? Take some time this week to list out your daily routine. Seeing how you spend your time will let you see exactly where you spend most of your time and how you can better organize it around the activities that are most important to you.